27 February 2023

Oaktree Capital Management: “Sea Change”

That’s what I think happened to investors over the last 40 years. They enjoyed the growth of the economy and the companies they invested in, as well as the resulting increase in the value of their ownership stakes. But in addition, they were on a moving walkway, carried along by declining interest rates. The results have been great, but I doubt many people fully understand where they came from. It seems to me that a significant portion of all the money investors made over this period resulted from the tailwind generated by the massive drop in interest rates. I consider it nearly impossible to overstate the influence of declining rates over the last four decades.

These are the reasons why I believe that the base interest rate over the next several years is more likely to average 2-4% (i.e., not far from where it is now) than 0-2%. Of course, there are counterarguments. But, for me, the bottom line is that highly stimulative rates are likely not in the cards for the next several years, barring a serious recession from which we need rescuing (and that would have ramifications of its own). But I assure you Oaktree isn’t going to bet money on that belief.

What we do know is that inflation and interest rates are higher today than they’ve been for 40 and 13 years, respectively. No one knows how long the items in the right-hand column above will continue to accurately describe the environment. They’ll be influenced by economic growth, inflation, and interest rates, as well as exogenous events, all of which are unpredictable. Regardless, I think things will generally be less rosy in the years immediately ahead:

Howard Marks

Interesting analysis of the macroeconomic environment from an investment perspective. Recently, inflationary pressures have subsided considerably: China has relaxed its zero-COVID policy, easing supply chain bottlenecks in the US in particular, while the warm winter and measures to rationalize energy use have brought natural gas prices in Europe down to 2021 levels without affecting industrial output.

24 February 2023

The Wall Street Journal: “Netflix cuts Subscription Prices in over 30 Countries”

Netflix Inc. has reduced the cost of its service in more than three dozen countries in recent weeks, as it tries to appeal to customers around the world who have an ever-growing list of streaming options.

The streaming company’s recent price cuts span Middle Eastern countries including Yemen, Jordan, Libya and Iran; sub-Saharan African markets including Kenya; and European countries such as Croatia, Slovenia and Bulgaria.

Netflix’s price changes are a sign that big streamers are still grappling with what pricing will deliver the best combination of subscriber growth and revenue abroad. Consumers can choose between local cable providers, regional streaming services and big global platforms. Big players including Walt Disney Co.’s Disney+, Warner Bros. Discovery Inc.’s HBO Max and Paramount Global’s Paramount+ are all expanding overseas.

We know members have never had more choices when it comes to entertainment, and the company is committed to delivering an experience that exceeds their expectations, a Netflix spokeswoman said. She said the company was updating the pricing of plans in some countries.

Sarah Krouse

It continues to baffle me how journalists constantly overlook Romania in news and reports regarding Eastern Europe. From the article above, you would think Netflix slashed prices only in smaller countries – after all, Croatia, Slovenia and Bulgaria are each less than a third of Romania’s population – but checking their website today I noticed the company updated their pricing here as well, with the basic subscription going down from 7.99 € to 4.99 €. This happens a lot when people share infographics: you get a host of small countries, with Romania nowhere in sight! At least with large-scale statistics you can rationalize the omission by assuming that particular set of data isn’t available for Romania, or gathered in a different method, thus difficult to compare against other countries. But in a brief news item why would you fail to mention the larger countries in the region, where the news is more relevant because of their populations!?

Variety: “YouTube expands Multi-Language Audio Tracks”

The multi-language audio feature lets creators add dubbing to new and existing videos, helping them expand their global reach and reach new audiences for their channels, according to YouTube. In early tests with a “handful” of creators, including MrBeast, YouTube has seen more than 3,500 multi-language videos uploaded in 40-plus languages as of January 2023. Creators testing multi-language dubbed videos saw more than 15% of their watch time coming from views in the video’s non-primary language in January, according to YouTube.

To use YouTube’s multi-language dubbing feature, when uploading a video to their channel, eligible creators can add different audio tracks through the Subtitles Editor tool. Existing content in creators’ catalogs can be updated with additional audio tracks as well. If you’re a viewer, just click the video’s settings to see what audio tracks are available to start watching in another language. In addition, content with multiple language tracks will default to match viewers’ preferred language and users will be able to search for multilingual content via translated video titles and descriptions.

Todd Spangler

This actually sounds like a perfect use case for AI voice synthesis and various adjacent tools: record the primary audio track normally in the creator’s main language, automatically transcribe and translate it to a selection of additional languages (the creator may optionally double-check the quality of the transcription and tweak the translation, provided he knows the target language), and finally generate new audio tracks in these languages in the creator’s own voice.

23 February 2023

The Wall Street Journal: “Elon Musk’s Boring Company ghosts Cities across America”

Dazzled by Boring’s boasts that it had revolutionized tunneling, and the cachet of working with the billionaire head of EV maker Tesla Inc., the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority dumped plans for a traditional light rail and embraced the futuristic tunnel.

When it came time to formalize the partnership and get to work, Boring itself went underground—just as it has done in Maryland, Chicago and Los Angeles. Boring didn’t submit a bid for Ontario by the January 2022 deadline.

The six-year-old company has repeatedly teased cities with a pledge to solve soul-destroying traffic, only to pull out when confronted with the realities of building public infrastructure, according to former executives and local, state and federal government officials who have worked with Mr. Musk’s Boring. The company has struggled with common bureaucratic hurdles like securing permits and conducting environmental reviews, the people said.

Every time I see him on TV with a new project, or whatever, I’m like: Oh, I remember that bullet train to Chicago O’Hare, said Chicago Alderman Scott Waguespack. Boring had backed away from its proposal for a high-speed tunnel link to the airport there.

Ted Mann & Julie Bykowicz

At this point, it should be blindingly obvious to anyone with an ounce of reason that you should never take Elon Musk’s promises at face value. They are intended primarily to reinforce his public perception as a visionary tech mogul and discourage projects that might compete with his existing businesses (such as selling cars). The real question in this reporting should be why local administrations continue to fall for his perpetual deception. In my view, the issue is how social media has skewed politics, amplifying grand but hollow announcements and vows – propaganda basically – while quiet but reliable administrators who deliver results for their communities are dismissed as boring and lacking presence.

20 February 2023

The Verge: “Google’s long-awaited Tasks and Reminders consolidation starts in March”

Putting a timetable on the move it announced in September, Google says users will be able to manage all tasks created across various Google apps from Google Tasks starting in March. Beginning May 22nd, Google will automatically move reminders created in the Google Assistant and Calendar apps to Tasks, though users can voluntarily start doing so ahead of time.

The move addresses a major complaint we’ve long had with Google’s task management system and makes it easy to now see everything in one place. It also brings it more in line with Microsoft’s more useful To Do app, which already integrated tasks across Outlook, Planner, and Teams.

The new Google tasks and reminders system still has some issues to iron out. For example, reminders created in Google’s note-taking Keep app will not move to Tasks. Though they’ll remain in the Keep app, this means they will no longer show up in Google Calendar, either. Also, Google Tasks still lacks features other project management apps offer, like the ability to search through your tasks and prioritize them.

Sheena Vasani

Google’s repeated stumbling in messaging may get more attention, but it’s certainly not the only area where the company is fumbling along, launching products with overlapping features that don’t quite match up against the competition and fail to get traction. Google’s tasks and reminders are the perfect example of these confusing and redundant experiences. You can create reminders in Calendar, through Google Assistant, the Tasks app, or in Google Keep, and this works fine on a basic level: you are reminded of that thing you needed. But good luck finding a single place to manage these items!

14 February 2023

The New York Times: “Layoffs by Email show what Employers really think of Their Workers”

It’s not just tech and media. Companies in a range of industries claim this is the only efficient way to do a lot of layoffs. Informing workers personally is too complicated, they say — and too risky, as people might use their access to internal systems to perform acts of sabotage. (These layoff emails are often sent to employees’ personal email; by the time they check it, they’ve been locked out of all their employer’s platforms.)

As someone who’s managed people in newsrooms and digital start-ups and has hired and fired people in various capacities for the past 21 years, I think this approach is not just cruel but unnecessary. It’s reasonable to terminate access to company systems, but delivering the news with no personal human contact serves only one purpose: letting managers off the hook. It ensures they will not have to face the shock and devastation that people feel when they lose their livelihoods. It also ensures the managers won’t have to weather any direct criticism about the poor leadership that brought everyone to that point.

Legally, companies have plenty of recourse if laid-off employees steal trade secrets or sabotage systems, and employees who need to find new jobs have little incentive to behave criminally, no matter how upset they may be. But even so, concerns about liability shouldn’t preclude treating employees like human beings.

Elizabeth Spiers

The wave of tech layoffs continues to spread from the big corporations like Google and Meta to other, less entrenched players, such as Dell and Zoom. While there are certainly valid reasons for concern over future growth perspectives in the tech sector, the US jobs market at least appears in great shape, and in some cases even after layoffs the companies ended 2022 with more employees than at the start of the year.

07 February 2023

The New York Times: “Ukraine War accelerates Shift of Power in Europe to the East”

Poland and the Baltic states have driven the moral argument to support Ukraine, filling a near-vacuum early in the war, when Europe’s traditional leaders, France and Germany, appeared paralyzed. But the war has also brought new urgency and energy for the enlargement of the European Union to the Western Balkans and beyond, with offers of candidacy for Ukraine and Moldova.

Vocal pressure from Eastern and Central Europe was crucial to the decisions this week, after months of wrangling and resistance, to give Western tanks to Ukraine. On Wednesday, Mr. Scholz announced that his country would supply some of its Leopard 2 tanks and allow other countries to send theirs, and President Biden said he would send American Abrams tanks, which gave Mr. Scholz the political cover he wanted.

The war is also accelerating what Mr. Scholz implied: that the balance of power in Europe is shifting, too, along with its center, away from “Old Europe”, which valued and cultivated its ties to Moscow, to the newer members to the east and north, with their raw memories of Soviet occupation and their reluctance to cede chunks of their reestablished sovereignty to Brussels.

Steven Erlanger

There has been some pushback against this piece on Twitter – and with good reason. Looking past the dubious ‘moral’ argument and the legitimate security concerns on the Eastern flank, real power still lies in a solid economic base, which neither Poland, nor the Baltic states have. Central and eastern Europe are receiving considerable contributions from the European Union, in turn financed by… Germany and France! I struggle to imagine how Poland would pay for its supposed massive military while also sustaining economic growth without European funds.

02 February 2023

Platformer: “Instagram’s co-founders are mounting a comeback”

Artifact — the name represents the merging of articles, facts, and artificial intelligence — is opening up its waiting list to the public today. The company plans to let users in quickly, Systrom says. You can sign up yourself here; the app is available for both Android and iOS.

The simplest way to understand Artifact is as a kind of TikTok for text, though you might also call it Google Reader reborn as a mobile app, or maybe even a surprise attack on Twitter. The app opens to a feed of popular articles chosen from a curated list of publishers ranging from leading news organizations like the New York Times to small-scale blogs about niche topics. Tap on articles that interest you and Artifact will serve you similar posts and stories in the future, just as watching videos on TikTok’s For You page tunes its algorithm over time.

TikTok’s innovation was to show you stuff using only algorithmic predictions, regardless of who your friends are or who you followed. It soon became the most downloaded app in the world.

Artifact represents an effort to do the same thing, but for text.

I saw that shift and I was like, oh, that’s the future of social, Systrom said. These unconnected graphs; these graphs that are learned rather than explicitly created. And what was funny to me is as I looked around, I was like, man, why isn’t this happening everywhere in social? Why is Twitter still primarily follow-based? Why is Facebook?

Casey Newton

Interesting concept; it seems Twitter’s turbulent present and uncertain future are opening up niches for competitors. I would certainly love a valid alternative to Twitter for news discovery, as Mastodon doesn’t seem that appealing to me – or fit for this purpose.